[K:NWTS 1/3 (Dec 1986) 28-34]
If you read any standard commentary on this passage you will no doubt be told that it is a New Testament hymn. This is fine so far, but if you keep reading on the subject you will discover that the authorities come to many different conclusions based on this observation. On the conservative side, some say that Paul has quoted a hymn written and sung by the early Christian community. On the radical side, some say Paul appropriated and modified a pagan hymn.
Despite the ingenuity and imagination of the arguments, the whole discussion is valuable only to the limited extent that it helps us to understand and apply the Word of God. That is, investigations about the origin of the passage must help us understand the passage as we have it, not a theoretical original that may exist only in the minds of the critics.
As it happens, the passage as we have it does exhibit some special formal characteristics. In my opinion, further study will show that Colossians 1:15-20 is Paul's own poetry modeled after the poetry found in the Old Testament. This is certainly possible as Paul's other writings attest. You never know when Paul, taken up by the glory of his subject, will launch into exalted, poetic utterance: "Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways" (Rom. 11:33)!
We will spend a moment on the form of this poem, but only as an aid to understanding its meaning.
The poetic devices of Colossians 1:15-20 are camouflaged in our English translations. However the original reveals verbal repetitions characteristic of Old Testament poetry. For instance, the introductory phrases ["he who is . . . because in him . . ." (vv.15-16)] are repeated in verses 18-19. These words mark out two stanzas (vv. 15-17a and 18-20) which are further aligned by the phrase: "in the heavens and on the earth" (v.16). This phrase has been turned inside out in verse 20: "on the earth or in the heavens." The effect is a well-rounded contrast and comparison: heavens . . . earth/earth . . . heavens.
Between the two main stanzas we have two smaller segments both introduced by "and he is" (vv.17a and 18a). These act as summaries of the main themes. Between these two segments, in the exact center of the poem lies its summation: 'And in him exists all things" (v.17b). The effect resembles an hourglass with its focus on the narrow part in the middle; or a butterfly turned on its side with its two wings colored by the same markings of spots and lines and joined in the center by its body.
Now we can see how the form of the poem bears on its meaning. The two main stanzas present two distinct yet interwoven themes: the Lord of the old creation (vv. 15-17a) and the Lord of the new creation (vv.18-20). And as the central, summary statement of verse 17b states, these two creations are held together because their Lord is one Lord, Jesus Christ. He it is who holds all history together. He it is who reigns over all and "upholds all things by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3). Paul's poem is like a medieval tapestry with two panels telling one story. The two panels contain related threads: "Firstborn over all creation" (v.15) and "Firstborn from the dead" (v.18). The two themes are summarized and united by the Firstborn. Today we will spend our time unraveling these threads.
The title "firstborn" has a rich significance in this passage especially when we look first at its Old Testament backdrop. The firstborn son of the patriarchal age was the heir to the majority or all of his father's property, a practice continued in the Mosaic period (cf. Deut. 21:17).
Equally important though, the firstborn inherited the patriarchal rule over the family. For example, when Jacob usurped Esau's blessing as firstborn, he inherited not only the rights to Isaac's property, but the birthright to become patriarch of God's covenant people of that time. Isaac blessed Jacob, who was disguised as Esau, and said, "May peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you; be master of your brothers and may your mother's sons bow down to you" (Gen. 27:29). Jacob thereby inherited the rulership of the family which normally fell to the firstborn.
Even during the monarchical period, the firstborn privilege of rule was active. David, although lastborn of Jesse, received a birthright as a gift from God who says in Psalm 89:27, "I also shall make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth." The firstborn signified a ruler as well as heir and in this case David's inheritance prefigured the greater inheritance of Jesus, son of David.
Thus by calling the Son of God the "Firstborn over all creation," Paul is acknowledging him as heir and ruler of the world from the beginning. And look at the lavish extent of his reign: all things, not all Eden, nor all Israel, nor even all the world, but ALL things–"because in him all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through him and for him" (v.16).
This last phrase of verse 16 shows us the ground of this Firstborn's rights: he is the agent of creation; all things were made through and in him. And what is more, all things were made "for him." He can be no mere man nor angel. Even the pagans never dared say that the world was made "for" their gods. But Paul says it here for the Firstborn Lord over all creation.
All creation was made for God's own Son. Think of what that means. The stars and their systems, the sun, this sphere with its continents, the mountains and their woods down to the last tree were all created through him and for him. Even–and this is the amazing thing–that one fatal tree was created for him in the beginning. From all eternity the cross was known to the Firstborn. Even the deadly cross was part of his inheritance.
As Firstborn, the Lord knew and accepted the cost of his inheritance–but compare him with others. Would Adam, whom the rabbis called "firstborn of the world," obey the single precept of God, rebuke Satan, and lead our race into the inheritance of eternal life? How willing was Esau to hold onto his birthright? Hungry, he sold it for a bowl of stew.
But thanks be to God! His Firstborn Son would not disobey nor would he sell his birthright! Indeed, he would buy his inheritance and at what great cost. Verse 13 alludes to the attempt to disinherit the Son. The terrorists of the "domain of darkness" had attempted a coup and though the rebellion reached its apex when through wicked human agents the Son was put to death, the overwhelming, creative power of God stunned the world. The Son had risen–"Let there be light"; "And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overpower it" (John 1:5).
The Firstborn did inherit the cross, but in his resurrection the Lord Jesus showed that he is the ruler over all his inheritance–even over the cross, even over death.
Now we are in a position to appreciate the second theme in the Colossians poem. He who is Firstborn over all things has become at his resurrection "Firstborn from the dead" (v.18). This heir and ruler over all creation had inherited the cross and through it brought about a new creation, the church.
Far too often we fail to apprehend the radical, cosmic significance of the resurrection of our Lord. By raising his Son, God not only broke the chains of death around him, but he was also, at that time in history, creating everlasting life for his people. The resurrection is a cosmic event. It is nothing less than the creation of a new race of people: "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Read also in Ephesians how the astounding power of God is directed toward believers: "in accordance with the working of the strength of his might which he brought about in Christ, when he raised him from the dead . . ." (Eph. 1:19-20). The life-giving power of God was unleashed in the resurrection of Christ and flows forth from there giving life to you and me.
We live in an age when that creational power is already active in the world, but like a raging ocean held by a sea wall is merely waiting for that one command to break loose in the consummation. Now we taste only the spray of the breakers, then will the flood of God's grace and wrath pour out upon the world. Then will the Firstborn enter into his majority as it were and make his rule visible, executing the fierce anger of God upon his enemies, and sweeping his people up in a tide of grace and mercy. Then will the sea give up its dead.
We know all this now because the eternal Firstborn of God took up our humanity and thereby created for himself a new inheritance, the church. We are a new creation, a new race with a new covenant Head, a new Beginning (v.18), a New Adam. The first Adam was made according to the divine image, but the second Adam is himself the very image of God (v.15): "the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his nature" (Heb. 1:3).
This association of the image with the firstborn is further developed in Romans 8:29 where Paul says: "For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren." The new creation of the Firstborn is being remade according to his image (1 Cor. 15:49; Col. 3:10). However in this passage Christ's office as Firstborn places him not only as the Head of a new race, but also as the elder brother of his people. We have become brothers and sisters with the all-ruling Firstborn. We have inherited eternal life because the Firstborn has graciously shared his inheritance with us.
Paul's poem has shown us how awesome and exalted Jesus Christ is. Time and again we are reminded how the divine Firstborn is "before all things" both in time and in dignity. The second stanza shows that the same Firstborn is also preeminent over his new creation, the church. How often men try to run the church and conform it to their own image. The church is the inheritance of Jesus Christ. He is her Lord. He will not give her up! He will not sell his birthright to any angel nor dictator nor man nor devil. For the church, for you and me, this is both a severe warning and a profound comfort.
Suggestion for further reading:
S.M. Baugh, "The Poetic Form of Colossians 1:15-20," Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 227-244.